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Sunday, March 9, 2014
- When Tomoharu, a 40-year-old businessman, decided he wanted an exotic pet to keep him company, he checked the Internet and was presented with a mind-boggling array of choices.
"When I typed in ‘rare pet’, I was bombarded by websites that sold everything from snakes to brown lemurs to a range of turtles," he recalls. ‘’The animals came with price tags, order forms, and pretty photos of other owners. It was quite amazing.”
As Tomoharu’s experience shows, Japan’s place as the world’s most lucrative market for exotic wildlife shows few signs of abating.
Yet the country, the world’s second largest economy, is a signatory of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington treaty. As a result, Japan is often a target for conservationists who are bitterly critical of the country’s booming underground trade in protected species from developing countries, ranging from endangered snakes, tigers and bear parts, and an assortment of birds.
"Lax domestic laws and rich consumers willing to pay high prices for exotic animals and birds have made Japan a haven for the wildlife trade," says Hisako Nogami, director of ALIVE, a non-profit organisation campaigning for better protection measures for animals and wildlife in the country.
Among the most popular exotic pets in the country right now, a recent survey by activists has shown, are rare tortoises – Indian star tortoise and Egyptian tortoises are some main examples.
The endangered species are native mostly to South and South-east Asian countries and are popular for their brightly patterned shells and rarity.
‘’Japanese consumers are on the lookout for pets that are exotic and not too demanding to rear. This makes the species very appealing," explains Hisako Kiyono, an expert at the Japan office of the wildlife trade monitoring agency TRAFFIC.
According to TRAFFIC, the monitored imports of live tortoises average 30,000 annually or 55 percent of the trade, making Japan the largest market in the world.
The United States, with double the population of Japan, follows in second place, with 20 percent of the trade.
Activists however contend that the actual number brought to Japan by smugglers could be much higher. Last year, more than 2,000 cases of confiscation of rare animals were reported at Japanese airports.
The tortoises are sold for an average of 300 U.S. dollars each at pet shops or on-line. Kiyono reports that some very rare species, such as the Madagascar star tortoises protected by Washington Convention, fetch as much as 10,000 dollars each, making the trade extremely profitable for dealers.
"Smugglers buy tortoises for as little as 30 to 40 dollars or sometimes even take them for free in their native countries. Thus the profits are enormous," Kiyono says.
In a bid to change the situation, activists are planning to present a set of new laws to the Diet or parliament this fall.
A key component of the proposed regulations, supported by sympathetic politicians, is a call on the government to set up a single monitoring body as the most effective means of stopping the controversial trade.
"One of the most deep-rooted problems in Japan is that too many ministries are involved in the issue. This system allows loopholes as there is no coordination," says Masato Ono of the Nature Conservation Society, which is also involved in the formation of new laws.
For example, the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry is in charge of the importation of animals that could cause infectious diseases, while domestic sales are the business of the transport ministry.
The Ministry of International Trade tracks imports of wildlife whereas most conservation laws are developed by the Environment Agency.
Other suggestions by activists point to the urgent need for a wildlife importation database, and the need to register sales at pet shops, as well as slap stiffer penalties on smugglers.
They also point to the need to raise consciousness among consumers who have started to irresponsibly dump their pets when they cannot take care of them.
Reports of police squads being called to catch slithering iguanas, snakes, and even a five-foot long python in February, now make regular front-page news. These reports helped prompt police to take action.
For the first time, a Cabinet survey on the issue in August showed that nearly 50 percent of those polled opposed the importation of wild animals to be kept as pets.
The Health Ministry also enacted new laws in July prohibiting the importation of raccoon dogs and ferret badgers from China in the wake of the outbreak Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) last year, which researchers traced to animals.
Among the animals they identified a source of the SARS virus in China is the civet cat. More than 700 masked palm civets were imported from South-east Asia last year.
But beyond health concerns, Nogami says, "we are fighting against a concept in Japan that animals are just toys, not creatures that the have the right to be reared in a suitable environment”.